In 1952, Mercedes-Benz, coffers empty after World War II, needed a race car to put it back in the higher echelons of motor racing. In just nine months, it developed a car that was sporty (because it handled well) and fast (because it was light). It had a radical new frame, an enhanced suspension system and a 3-litre engine. This was the W194—a race-winning car (see box), in which function took priority over form.

Good sport: The new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG on the Pan-American Highway in Mexico.

Two years later, Mercedes-Benz introduced a road-going version of this race car—the W198 or the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL—with a breathtaking form. This became one of the most revered sports coupés of its time.

Its design was so futuristic that, 56 years on, its spiritual successor, the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, carries similar design cues: the gaping grille dominated by the three-pointed star, the long bonnet and upright windscreen and, of course, the iconic “Gullwing" doors.

AMG is a Mercedes-Benz subsidiary that turns out thoroughbred sports versions of normal Mercedes-Benz models. But the SLS is the first car that AMG has completely engineered from the ground up.

Like the W194, it was developed in true race car tradition. Function took priority over form. Early prototypes were tested for handling, speed and dynamics. Only once it got these spot on did AMG start giving the car its beautiful form, taking design hints from the 300 SL.

Burning rubber

History lesson done. Now on to why the SLS AMG defines exhilaration at the wheel

My pulse is still racing after a day out driving the SLS on the twisty Pan-American Highway from Puebla to Oaxaca in Mexico—465km of bliss. In my head, the engine still roars—sweet and loud—as it downshifts through the seven-speed double-clutch transmission with the ceramic brakes shaving off speed as I attack a corner.

Off the brakes, round the apex, on the gas—and 563 horses in the crankcase burst into spontaneous gallop, as if being ridden by Wagner’s Valkyries. More emotions surge through me in those 4 seconds around the curve than in a usual day. Terror, confidence, joy and exhilaration rapidly sear through me as the SLS urges me to take a corner at an eye-popping pace and then goes around it with the poise and grace of a Bolshoi ballerina doing a pirouette. There’s no battle of wills fought through the steering wheel to keep things tidy, nor a nightmare waiting to happen if the corner is a double apex one—just oodles of grip. The dynamics and weight distribution of this car (47% at the front and 53% at the rear) inspire enough confidence to scythe through twists and turns quickly and precisely. I just wish that the steering wheel would go a little stiffer as speeds go up.

To give you figures, AMG claims the SLS will go from 0 to 100 kmph in just 3.8 seconds and to 200 kmph in 12 seconds—true, because I remember the speedo needle going to 200 kmph ever so often.

You can let the auto gearbox do the shifting, but it is more exciting to use the paddle shifts behind the steering. On twisty roads, this car demands to be driven hard, thanks to its huge appetite for corners. Yet on straight sections of a motorway, it will happily cruise at 120 kmph with the engine turning over at 2500 rpm in seventh gear.

Cockpit class

Inside the car, it feels more like an aircraft cockpit, thanks to design elements which include a gear selector that looks like a joystick. Buttons flank the centre console. With one of these you can choose the driving mode (comfort, sports, sports+ or manual), another lets you choose the ESP mode (normal or sports), and yet another raises the rear fin (which opens automatically at 120 kmph anyway). The seats—with lightweight magnesium backrests—are thinly padded but hugely adjustable for perfect driving posture.

The suspension handles road irregularities quite well, but a few jarring thuds filter through. Yet the damping is commendable for a car whose priority is performance.

Grabbing eyeballs

You cannot escape attention with this car. Its signature exhaust note and striking lines get it plenty of eyeballs. Whenever I opened the Gullwing doors, people flocked to it and out came the cellphone cameras.

The SLS AMG is a very engaging driver’s car—a supercar that demands adulation and in turn will give you loads of exhilaration each time you take it on a long drive, preferably on a curving road.

Finally, how much fuel will it drink? Drive it like a saint and you could stretch a litre to 9km. Make it go like Mata Hari and it could be drinking a litre every 3km.

Mercedes-Benz India Ltd has already started taking orders for the SLS AMG, which has a basic price tag of Rs2 crore.

The grandpa of the SLS AMG

While its looks make it the spiritual successor to the road-going 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the AMG team that created the SLS drew inspiration from the W194—the racing 300 SL.

Grand old Merc: John Fitch in Mexico last week, with teammate Karl Kling’s W194 sports coupé, which won the 3rd Carrera Panamericana in 1952.

In 1950, Mercedes-Benz’s pre-war Silver Arrows was past its glory days. So they developed the W194—a sporty and light race car—Sport Leicht (SL).

For sporty handling, the W194 featured double wishbone suspension pioneered by Mercedes-Benz in the 1930s and, using a tubular space frame as a supporting structure, made the W194 light. A space frame allows reduced metal usage without sacrificing strength. To look at, it’s a filigree latticework of a large number of triangles and seems more holes than metal, but it’s this precise geometric arrangement of metal that gives it strength. The W194’s space frame was 20kg lighter than that of the Silver Arrows’ but just as strong.

Since the space frame reached high up at the sides, the Gullwing doors were a technical necessity which inadvertently contributed to the car’s cult status.

It was in Mexico in November 1952 that a pair of W194 racing sports coupés, driven by Karl Kling and Hermann Lang, took the first and second places in the 3rd Carrera Panamericana—a gruelling 3,100km road race. The Puebla to Oaxaca route was a part of this race.

A third W194, driven by World War II ace John Fitch, would have come third had he not been disqualified on a technicality on the penultimate day.

It’s a fitting tribute to drive the new SLS AMG on the very road on which its grandaddy achieved its greatest triumph.

Rishad Saam Mehta writes about driving holidays. He was invited by Mercedes-Benz India to test drive the SLS AMG in Mexico.

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Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta